Circling Back to the Oregon Coast and California Redwoods

Between the pandemic and smoke, we spent a biiit more time at home this year. (Anyone else?) Luckily, early December presented a (rare) clear weather window in the Pacific Northwest, so we packed the van and headed west to the ocean.

This wasn’t an adventure trip with Type 2 fun. Nope, this was a vacation, a chance to revisit areas we fondly remembered from kicking off our van trip in 2013.

We had simple goals as we drove over the Cascades: 1) turn our faces to the salty ocean spray during beach walks and 2) wander with necks craned back in the towering redwoods of Northern California. 

Since covid disclaimers are all the rage, here’s ours: other than gas fillups, we were completely self-contained and alone for the entire week. Well, we rescued an injured seagull, but I don’t think they can catch the virus…

For those Googling for specific hikes and campgrounds, skip ahead to the section.

Waldport beach
Beach walking near Tillicum Campground.

The Beach

Travel in mountains stokes me with possibilities, but the beach acts as the ultimate grounding agent. Standing next to a massive body of water strips away day-to-day worries for both of us.

The southern Oregon coast is special because it’s a mix of treed areas and dunes, with steep cliffs interspersed with perfect sand beaches. We’d hike through an emerald green tunnel and then burst into the sun onto rolling dunes as far as we could see. The contrast is fantastic.

We leisurely skipped our way south in the van, stopping to camp, hike, or eat meals at vistas. Our only headache was toasted batteries – they’re five years past replacement age. New ones incoming soon.

Enough about the beach. Off to the redwoods!

The magical Alder Dunes area north of Florence.

The Redwoods

Time scales for redwood trees are too long for my brain to really grasp. Take the 1,500-year-old Big Tree in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park as an example: when colonialist settler loggers first arrived in the 1850s, the tree had lived 90% of its current life. Somehow it survived the axes and is part of the 5% of remaining old-growth redwoods.

At 286 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter, the footprint is a fair portion of most houses and is as tall as a 30-story building. According to The Hidden Life of Trees, if humans were able to digest wood, one that large could feed us 3,000 calories a day for our entire lives.

big tree prairie creek
The Big Tree. 1,500 years old, 75 feet around and 286 feet tall. Each gnarled branch looked like it was 500 years old!

Next to such majestic, old beings, humans seem small and short-lived, skittering about our frenetic little lives in the time a redwood grows a few more inches in diameter. Hiking beneath them feels like traversing nature’s cathedral, a quiet, reverent place where anything over a whisper feels rude.

One fascinating aspect of redwoods is the ability of their seeds to sprout on the stumps of their fallen forefathers. The little seed taps into the root system of the elder tree, gaining access to the vast subterranean network of nutrients. Tree lottery winner! The symbiosis of the trees is clearly apparent, with the gigantic snags often circled by their offspring.

Since there is no possible way to fully capture the coast and redwoods in words, I’ll end this here. Instead, below are some of my favorite photos from the trip, which of course don’t capture it either.

fern canyon hike
In the heart of the marvelous Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods SP

Resource List: Campgrounds and Hikes

First, a quick list of our favorite campgrounds and hikes on the Oregon Coast and California redwoods during our trip.

A note to van lifers: While we usually boondock camp, most coastal property (other than the entirely-public beach) is private. I was happy to pay for the pleasure of empty campgrounds with beach access. 

I noticed that iOverlander moderators have closed many camping spots due to overuse and complaints from locals. For an impacted area like the coast, I think paying for a site is the way to go. We can boondock camp in the desert and wide-open national forests!

For summer, book six months ahead of time for the coast and the redwoods. I prefer the off-season. Sure, the weather is iffy and it gets dark early, but there are ZERO crowds. 

Fog rolling in at Prairie Creek. In the summer, this road is lined with cars.

Oregon Coast (from Waldport to CA border):

  • Tillicum Campground: campsites overlooking the massive beach south of Waldport. For $25 a night, you get a million-dollar view. The beach offers endless walking opportunities.
  • Alder Dunes Campground & hike: a secluded spot north of Florence with a 6ish-mile hike from camp through tree tunnels and over dunes to an empty beach.
  • Tahkenitch Dunes hike: this hike spends a mile deep in the coastal rainforest before bursting out onto the dunes. Mushrooms were everywhere! For reference, there’s a campground at the trailhead, though it was closed.
  • Cape Blanco hike: Oregon’s westernmost point! The lighthouse is cool, but my favorite part was getting down on the beach and wandering through all the giant driftwood logs. We didn’t camp here, but there’s a state park as well.
Driftwood (and Chelsea) on Cape Blanco beach.

Northern California Redwoods:

  • Florence Keller County Park: most county parks resemble parking lots, but we pulled into this gem north of Crescent City to avoid dark, foggy conditions and WHAMMO were in tall trees with secluded spots. Many reviews say it’s the place to go during peak tourist months when everything books up.
  • Prairie Creek Campground: a stunning setting in the redwoods that must be absolute mayhem when it’s busy. In the off-season, it was quiet and provides access to many loops in the park.
  • John Irvine to Fern Canyon to Miner’s Ridge hike: try this ridiculously awesome 12-mile hike for variety. Miles and miles beneath 250-foot redwoods, then down into a canyon with walls covered in ferns, and then along a beach, where we saw Roosevelt Elk (they sport 4’ antlers, whaat). From there, you loop back through redwoods. A top-10 hike for me.
oregon mushrooms
Mushrooms!
  • Prairie Creek/Foothill/Circle/Cathedral Trail hike: all manner of options available here, but this 5-mile option goes by the Big Tree mentioned above plus other giant redwoods, overlooks spawning salmon habitat, and gives you a chance to see elk in the prairie.

Note: stop and wander down any of the short signed trails off the Newton B. Drury Parkway. Anywhere in the redwoods is worth seeing! 

Enough chit chat. Photos, go.

Yachats beach
What a trip to the beach does to us! (No, we didn’t get soaked by that wave.)
It wasn’t all easy though: Chelsea forgot the French press. This cowboy coffee kiiinda worked.
Thick seaweed (or something!) coating the rocks at Pebble Beach by Crescent City.
Our rescued seagull (Lefty), who Humboldt Wildlife Care took in. Not before he spent a night in the van though… Newsflash: seagull poop is stinky!
driftwood sunset
Sunset on the beach near Brookings.
Ocean-spray dew on a spider web near Yachats.
Out of the tree tunnels and onto the sand during the Tahkenitch Dunes hike.
A stop in the redwoods for a quick hike at one of the many pullouts.
Clearly this chunk of log on Cape Blanco was put here to stand on!
Two sculptures made of plastic at the Washed Ashore project in Bandon. They’re 8′ tall!
henry the fish washed ashore project
Henry the Fish’s eyeball from the Washed Ashore project. Check the detailing out.
Detail of Henry the Fish at the Washed Ashore project.
Henry’s scales.
washed up stump Cape Blanco
An old hollow stump on the beach at Cape Blanco. I could climb inside it!
Hopping logs over the creek in Fern Canyon.
Don’t eat these!
I forgot my headphone adapter, but Chelsea was nice enough to tolerate me playing my keyboard. (Stop pretending you don’t travel with a piano. Everybody is doing it.)
Let’s end with a puzzle: Dunes from 10,000′ or the beach from 3′?
10 replies
  1. Go Jules Go
    Go Jules Go says:

    Ahh thank you for sharing these magical photos! So glad you got to enjoy a crowd-less getaway with mild (relatively speaking) weather! Extra magical read thanks to having that Christmas Peaceful Piano Spotify playlist going in the background [that you recommended in your newsletter]. My favorite line: “Next to such majestic, old beings, humans seem small and short-lived, skittering about our frenetic little lives in the time a redwood grows a few more inches in diameter.”

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thansk Jules. Isn’t skittering such a good word? Nothing calms the mind and centers the body like Christmas Peaceful Piano…riiight? With the right rain gear, any weather is (relatively) mild…plus we got lucky and it mostly rained at night!

      Reply
  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    I so enjoy reading your posts! You have such a gift and use it well. I’ve probably asked you this before, but were you able to save the ones you wrote when you did your world tour when you were in college? They were amazing and I shared them with everyone. My brother still remembers who you are and he’s never met you.

    Happy holidays to you and Chelsea!
    Chris recently posted…No News WednesdayMy Profile

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      You’re too kind! Thanks for the compliment, I truly appreciate that. I closed the account where I posted those blogs in 2005-2006, but I saved all the writing. Rereading them drove home the importance of editing – most were basically one draft written straight through in internet cafes all over the world since I was traveling sans-laptop or cell phone! Could be fun to edit some and repost them… Appreciate that you’ve followed my writing this long.

      Reply
  3. altadoc
    altadoc says:

    Thanks for sharing all these amazing photos. Such a great trip to take in the van! We did something similar in late July. And while the parks were slower, they definitely were not empty like this! It makes me want to get back down there in the winter/early spring.

    A couple of other places worth checking out – Gold Beach Campground. 30 minute drive through the forest, which pops you out on the coast! Often elk hanging out in the campground.

    The other is the northern section of Six Rivers National Forest, just past Hiouchi. Tons of dispersed camping options, beautiful gravel riding, and deserted!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks for the excellent tips! I’ll try to check these areas out next time we’re down there. However, what is this “gravel” riding? Isn’t mountain biking the only sport? Kidding…Chelsea’s new bike means we are doing that more frequently!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge